There are signs of improvement when it comes to Canadian women in power. For instance, the 2021 federal election saw the highest percentage (43 per cent) of female and gender-diverse candidates running. That positive trend is the result of generations of Canadian women working to challenge the sexism and patriarchy endemic to our country’s power structure.
To that end we profile six female politicians who have contributed to Canadian society in major ways.
Born in 1937, Jean Augustine was the first African-Canadian woman to be elected to the House of Commons (in 1993) and shepherded Ontario’s Black History Month into being celebrated across Canada (in 1995). But this Grenadian native’s commitment to women’s issues and those of her adopted country’s African-Canadian population went back decades (she helped organize Toronto’s first Caribana festival back in 1967). She took on a variety of roles during her tenure in government, including as PM Jean Chretien’s Parliamentary Secretary. She is a revered figure in Canadian politics thanks to her tireless dedication to public service and commitment to empowering marginalized communities. Her legacy includes having a Humber College scholarship named after her.
Former journalist Chrystia Freeland only entered politics in 2013 but has become so indispensable to PM Justin Trudeau’s government that she is colloquially referred to as “Minister of Everything.”
In fact, she is the Deputy Prime Minister and current Minister of Finance, the first woman to hold that portfolio. Among her many achievements are the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and being the personal target of sanctions by the Russian government due to Canada imposing travel bans and economic sanctions on Ukrainian and Russian officials.
She is a skilled diplomat and economic policy expert who has advocated for human rights and promoted Canada’s economic growth.
She was only Prime Minister for 132 days, but BC native Kim Campbell’s appointment to the country’s highest office after Brian Mulroney’s resignation in 1993 is significant as she remains Canada’s only female PM. Indeed, her political career is filled with female firsts, including justice minister, attorney general, and minister of national defence and veterans’ affairs. She also advocated for gay rights as a Social Credit backbencher in the ‘80s and opposed her own party leader’s opposition to abortion. Her short tenure as PM was marked by the highest popularity levels of the office in 30 years, though her government lost to Jean Chretien’s Liberals.
Former governor general Michaëlle Jean’s dedication to humanitarian causes like social justice, diversity, and inclusivity are well-earned. She was born in Haiti in 1957 during the turbulent reign of dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and saw her father flee to Canada in 1965 after he was arrested and tortured. She and the rest of her family followed the next year, settling in Québec. She became an activist against domestic abuse and a popular figure in both French and English Canadian media. Her appointment as Canada’s first Black governor general in August 2005 by Prime Minister Paul Martin saw her become a passionate speaker who advocated for the arts, promoted Canada abroad, and pointed out economic problems in Canada’s North.
She played a key role procuring vaccines for Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic and has led government efforts to supply Ukraine with military aid in its war against Russia. But before she entered politics in 2019, Canada’s Defence Minister Anita Anand, 56, was an accomplished lawyer and University of Toronto law professor. Her move into politics was a modest one, becoming the MP for Oakville, Ontario, in October 2019. But she was soon after named Minister of Public Services and Procurement, helping to manage Canada’s supply chains with her background in the regulation of capital markets. In her defence role, Anand is spearheading efforts to challenge racism in Canada’s military.
Lawyer Catherine McKenna had a brief political career (2015 to 2021), but her time was marked by significant work on the climate change issue, one she has continued in her post-political life. The Hamilton, ON native was one of 50 women elected to Justin Trudeau’s caucus in 2015 and became a lead negotiator in that year’s Paris Agreement as Canada’s Minster of Environment and Climate Change. That work led her to be dubbed “Climate Barbie” by Rebel News, a media outlet that has promoted climate change denial. McKenna decided not to seek re-election in 2021 and has since founded the environmentally minded advisory firm Climate and Nature Solutions.
Sean Plummer | Contributing Writer